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Caste review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘sweet and sentimental’

Duncan Moore and Isabella Marshall in Caste at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Greg Veit Duncan Moore and Isabella Marshall in Caste at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Greg Veit
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TW Robertson was a pioneering playwright and director who helped to modernise mid-Victorian theatre by bringing a new quality of realism to writing and performance.

Admired by the likes of Sullivan, Pinero and Shaw, Robertson specialised in “cup and saucer” domestic comedies.

Having resurrected Ours in 2007, the Finborough Theatre now stages a rare revival of his masterpiece Caste – a comedy-drama about social class where the attitudes may seem dated but the humour still sparkles 150 years after its premiere in Charlotte Peters’ entertaining production.

When upper-crust soldier George d’Alroy falls in love and marries less well off dancer Esther Eccles, he expects to raise her to his station. But he underestimates the problems of reconciling their two very different families, especially her drunken, work-shy father and his snobbish, aristocratic mother – and then he is called to go on active duty to India.

There are some amusing lines about social hierarchy, such as, “The inexorable law of caste…forbids a giraffe to fall in love with a squirrel!” and, “Life’s a railway journey, and Mankind’s a passenger ‒ first class, second class, third class”. But at its heart Caste is a sentimental comedy in which true love triumphs over pride and prejudice.

Duncan Moore and Isabella Marshall play it pretty straight as the ardent sweethearts defying convention, while Paul Bradley’s unashamedly coarse, scrounging Eccles and Susan Penhaligon’s eccentrically haughty Marquise bring much colour.

Rebecca Collingwood gives a scene-stealing performance as Esther’s spirited, theatrical younger sister Polly, engaged to Neil Chinneck’s upwardly mobile plumber Sam. And Ben Starr plays George’s sceptical but loyal friend Captain Hawtree who himself finds out what it means to fall in love with someone out of his league.

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Sweet, amusing, if sentimental, Victorian comedy of manners